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In Texas, the second-highest-ranking state official has warned of looming legislation threatening tenure in public colleges and universities and making it a fireable offense to teach critical race theory, or CRT. Such attacks on CRT at institutions of higher learning seem to be gaining ground. While the national political debate on CRT rages on, one aspect that remains relatively undiscussed has been the impact of those attacks on Black and Indigenous scholars and other academics who are people of color.

The sort of threats being made by the Texas politician to the larger academic structure are not new. As Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira argue in The Imperial University, repression and intimidation of BIPOC faculty, in fact, existed long before politicians threatened the independence and academic freedom of colleges and universities on the basis of their attention to systemic racism. But we must now work harder than ever to try to mitigate the danger that BIPOC faculty face. While their work has long been subject to higher visibility and different standards of evaluation than their white colleagues’, even their academic freedom and free speech protections are at risk today as civility is weaponized against them.

The various pieces of legislation attacking CRT might not hold up under future legal scrutiny. However, the damage they wreak fundamentally alters the cultural climate, a change that cannot be easily dismissed. The threat to higher education institutions from anti-CRT advocates is effective because it leverages and amplifies existing fears that assume a fundamental otherness of BIPOC communities. And the message that gets communicated to BIPOC faculty—whether officially or informally—is that they are risking their careers and livelihoods by doing research, teaching or supporting efforts to diversify our curriculum whenever they include the marginalized stories, histories and cultural production of BIPOC communities.

The threat of anti-CRT efforts to intellectual and academic freedom does not affect all faculty equally. The AAUP’s 1940 Statement on the Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure illustrates the long-standing efforts to ensure the protection of the professoriate. While non-BIPOC scholars of CRT are currently taking steps to promote academic freedom, BIPOC scholars are fighting for the right to study our own communities and histories. Scholarship by BIPOC faculty that focuses on race is automatically suspect—its legitimacy questioned—as it is assumed to be biased due to our racial or ethnic identity. Richard Delgado and other legal scholars who have been working on critical race theory express their unease with the fervor of today’s politicized critique. And it is not just those who teach and conduct research in fields connected to CRT that are vulnerable. BIPOC faculty in unrelated fields are assumed to be furthering CRT for no other reason than their ethnic or racial identity.

Creating Intentional Mentoring Programs

Institutions need to be more attuned to the challenges that the current climate is creating for BIPOC faculty. One way to do that is to develop intentional mentoring environments designed by BIPOC faculty themselves to leverage the power of affinity groups. Traditional mentoring that tries to acclimate individual faculty to academic culture has long been a tool for recruitment and retention of BIPOC faculty. For example, the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity offers focused programs on mentoring as a way to pivot institutional cultures toward equity and inclusion. However, institutions also need to allocate funding for such initiatives and not rely on individual BIPOC faculty members to secure it independently.

Working with the Faculty of Color Working Group, and with funding from the New England Humanities Consortium and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we were charged with creating a pilot mentoring program for BIPOC faculty in New England. As Latinx faculty, we have participated in previous mentoring programs, either as mentors or mentees. In designing our mentoring program, we were aware from our experiences that advice given to early-career scholars that may create positive outcomes for some people is often counterproductive for BIPOC faculty members.

In designing a new mentoring approach, we understood what CRT challenges us to do: enact systemic transformation. Acknowledging and embracing the strengths of BIPOC faculty positions them as the active agents of change that higher education needs today. This is the values-driven change that CRT critics already understand and fear. As Steven Mintz and Paul Mattingly have noted, the kind of transformational change that BIPOC faculty promise is not exactly in keeping with the traditional efforts we’ve seen in higher education, which to date have not been fundamental or structural enough to disrupt power imbalances—to even make much of a dent in the hiring and retention of BIPOC faculty, for instance.

Today, higher education must invest in supporting BIPOC faculty’s drive for transformation, even as institutional bottom lines constrict. In leading a mentoring program that translates our mentees’ values and visions for change into actual practices, we have learned that asking BIPOC faculty to alter who they are simply to fit into the model of success that our institutions envision devalues their transformative impact. As the various authors of Civility, Free Speech, and Academic Freedom in Higher Education: Faculty on the Margins discuss, BIPOC scholars can and must continue the vital work of resisting systemic oppression.

Our BIPOC-led cohort mentoring model supports colleagues to become the scholars and educators they envision themselves to be; it fosters tools and strategies to fight for transformation for ourselves, our students and our peers. We are not asking our colleagues to remain silent in the face of macro- or microaggressions, to acquiesce to inequity or injustice, or to wait until achieving tenure to push back against the harm that many institutions create. We want our colleagues to feel unfettered from expectations of civility that are often bound into tenure expectations and to feel supported in their challenges to toxic structures of oppression.

A road map for creating mentoring environments with the potential to transform the academy includes:

  • BIPOC leadership through both departments and affinity groups to design and implement all stages of mentoring programs.
  • A framework that promotes community-building and collectivity across institutions rather than individual approaches to being in academe. For example, our program offers monthly meetings to foster cohort mentoring, peer support for navigating academic life and regional networking and meet-ups across the Northeast.
  • Networks that provide community and training to mentors.
  • Bottom-up mentoring that privileges nonhierarchical structures where mentors and mentees share knowledge with each other. As an example, rather than assuming the facilitators and mentors are complete experts, our workshops are structured to crowdsource intentional strategies for allocating time and making labor that mentees value visible and understood in their institutions.
  • Cohort-based mentoring that creates systems of support that transcend the traditional mentor-mentee model and fosters peer mentoring and shared support. Lateral and peer mentoring are central to our program. Mentees organize writing groups, support each other in preparing for job talks and engage in scholarly collaboration, effectively sharing expertise and networks.
  • Mentoring programs with interinstitutional reach to break the isolation for BIPOC faculty who lack community and a sense of belonging at their institutions, such as a BIPOC faculty caucus.
  • Engagement in social equity–informed dialogue that challenges traditional hierarchies of knowledge and builds belonging.
  • For early-career faculty, programs that decenter tenure as the end goal and instead prioritize education as a liberatory practice for educators and students. After all, systemic change can only come from the practice of education motivated beyond institutional bounds, as bell hooks taught us.

BIPOC faculty and scholars are not just tools to diversify the curriculum, support inclusive excellence and make higher education more accessible. While our very identities are under attack by CRT critics, institutions must do more to sustain and protect their BIPOC faculty. This work begins by foregrounding, listening to and acknowledging BIPOC faculty as change agents. Creating networks of mentoring and support that intentionally meet the needs of BIPOC faculty is a first step in that direction.

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